Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, worries that the court ruling might set a precedent for Canadian law. CNS photo/Laura Ieraci

Dutch euthanasia ruling ignites C-7 fears

  • May 7, 2020

A Dutch court ruling that green lights the killing of dementia patients incapable of giving consent is a prelude to what Canada could face under a proposed new law, fear euthanasia opponents.

They are concerned that Bill C-7, which will expand so-called medical assistance in dying, will take the approach of Dutch courts, which found a doctor innocent of murder after he euthanized a dementia patient who had to be sedated and held down by family members after refusing to submit to a lethal injection.

Canada’s pending Bill C-7, which was introduced in February, provides protection for doctors should a patient who is deemed incompetent attempt to withdraw the signed consent that was given before dementia set in.

“The legislation that’s proposed actually expects that and allows that,” said Nicole Scheidl, executive director of Canadian Physicians for Life. “If the doctor presumes the refusal to take the drug (to kill the patient) is just a reaction to touch they can go ahead and give the drug without the person’s consent.”

The Dutch case saw the Netherlands’ highest court rule April 22 that doctors could euthanize a patient with severe dementia even if the patient no longer wished to die or became incapable of expressing their wishes, provided the patient had left an advance request in writing to be killed. The ruling followed the acquittal of a doctor in 2016 who had drugged a 74-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s disease as she resisted a lethal injection.

The woman had earlier instructed her family she wanted to die by euthanasia but at a time of her choosing. After her illness reached a point where she wasn’t able to choose a time to die, her family interceded. The woman fought the injection and was given sedatives before her family held her down for the injection.

There’s no case on record of a similar incident in Canada, and that leaves Alex Schadenberg wondering if a Canadian court might be guided by the Dutch ruling.

“Will a future court decision in Canada consider this a precedent?” asked the executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of Canada based in London, Ont.

One way or the other, Canada is on the path to expanded euthanasia, said Schadenberg. “You have not a pressure to contain it but a pressure to expand it.”

Scheidl agrees. She believes the federal Liberal government opted not to appeal a 2019 Quebec court ruling that paved the way to expand euthanasia access “because they wanted ideologically to go down this road anyway … and then they can say it’s not us, it’s the courts,” said Scheidl.

While the Liberal government is a minority, support for expanded assisted dying crosses party lines, as the Liberals, NDP, Bloc Quebecois and Greens are all proponents of expanded access to the procedure.

“There’s a certain mindset that thinks that anyone should be able to have euthanasia for any reason at any time,” said Scheidl. “They’re pushing to get rid of all the safeguards because they see that as an impediment to that kind of access.”

As for the Netherlands, Schadenberg expects the ruling will increase the numbers of medical deaths there.

Cardinal Willem Eijk, president of the Bishops’ Conference of the Netherlands, believes the Supreme Court decision will increase pressure on doctors to perform euthanasia.

The pro-euthanasia group Dying With Dignity Canada said it is looking forward to the federal government’s review of assisted dying legislation, including advanced requests.

CEO Helen Long said in an e-mail people “diagnosed with a grievous and irremediable medical condition, including those with dementia … should also be able to have an advance request for (assisted dying) at a later time,” and noted strong support for this in surveys of Canadians.

“It is critical to engage experts in the field, as well as people whose rights are at stake, to develop a system for advance requests that ensures fair access while implementing safeguards,” said Long.

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